31/Jul/2014 - Last News Update: 12:02

Giant tortoise death casts shadow over Galapagos Islands

Category: Headlines

Published: 6th Aug 2012 00:46:14

A shadow has hung over the Galapagos Islands since the death in June of its most famous resident, the giant tortoise Lonesome George, and the islands are worried by the impact of his death on the tourist industry.

The day after Lonesome George's unexpected death, Marilyn Cruz took a phone call she would rather not have done.

Owing to Ecuador's constitution, the first in the world to afford the same rights to nature as it does to humans, the famously celibate Lonesome George had to be afforded a full autopsy.

And Cruz would have to do it.

Cruz is a vet, perhaps in her early 40s, who is the co-ordinator of Agrocalidad in Galapagos, the government agency responsible for agricultural standards and biosecurity in the islands.

She takes me to her laboratory and walks towards a large chest-style freezer.

I half expect to see some frozen peas, a tub of mint choc-chip ice cream and a bag of oven-ready chips but instead I am looking down on the carefully preserved remains of a giant tortoise called George.

I am so taken by surprise at this surreal sight I find myself genuinely speechless. A breathy "oh," is all I can come up with.

Once Cruz has closed the freezer and I gather my senses, I ask her what it was like to have carried out George's autopsy.

She hugs her bare arms against the chill air of the lab and, perhaps, the gory images flitting through her mind.

"I felt a confusion of emotions," she tells me.

As a Galapagena, born and raised on the island of Floreana, she felt great sadness at the loss of this national treasure.

But she had to put her sentiments aside, pick up an electric saw and cut through his plastron - the curved underbelly of a tortoise - to get at his insides.

"It was not something I wanted to do, but it was something that had to be done," she says.

Later I walk down Puerto Ayora's main street that runs east-west along the coast.

It is smart, it is friendly and it is lined with restaurants and souvenir shops. The Lonesome George brand is very much in evidence on t-shirts, as jewellery and in the shape of miscellaneous nick-nacks.

The Lonesome George brand is very much in evidence on t-shirts, as jewellery and in the shape of miscellaneous nick-nacks.”

I am off to meet a man regarded here as something of a living legend - Fausto Llerena.

He joined the Galapagos National Park in 1971 and his long career as a ranger has been largely defined by Lonesome George.

He looked after him, day-in-day-out, for 40 years and it was Fausto Llerena who found him dead at the end of June.

We sit beneath the shade of bright green vegetation and I ask what Lonesome George meant to him.

I study his bronze features, his shining eyes, a wrinkled fold of skin beneath his chin and think how like a tortoise he looks.

He talks slowly and fondly of George, of the times they shared together.

It is only towards the end of our conversation that his emotions get the better of him and his upper lip begins to tremble.

"He was my best friend," he says.

How does Galapagos pick itself up after this loss?

One response has been to look for another tortoise to take on the celebrity role.

The most likely contender is Diego, an aggressive male who has sired more than 600 giant tortoises. Prolific he may be, but he does not really have the same celebrity quality or quiet, plodding pathos of Lonesome George.

Fausto Llerena clearly is not so fond of him.

"When you enter his pen, Diego comes near and his intentions aren't friendly. He once bit me," he says.

I make my way to the Charles Darwin Research Station, hoping to get a glimpse of Diego for myself.

First, I climb up the wooden walkway to the platform that overlooks what was Lonesome George's enclosure. There are still two tortoises in there, females with whom it was hoped George might mate.

One of them is taking a walk through the pool in the middle of the corral and the other is crunching her way through some stick of plant matter.

I wonder if they notice George has gone, if they miss him as much as the human residents of Galapagos do.

The fruity odour of tortoise dung - not unlike that of a cow pat - mingles with the cool Pacific breeze. It is nearly midday, the sun is directly overhead and the tortoises are flat out, legs thrust into the dusty earth as they soak up the heat.

Then one of them begins to move. It is Diego.

Slowly but deliberately, he manoeuvres into position behind a slumbering female to begin the strenuous climb up onto her shell.

As he begins to grunt, I have to admire his commitment to the conservation cause. But there is something a little unseemly about all this grinding of shells.

Coming so soon after the sun set on Lonesome George's celibate life, sex at midday just does not seem quite right.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: A 30-minute programme on Saturdays, 11:30 BST.

Listen online or download the podcast

BBC World Service:

Hear daily 10-minute editions Monday to Friday, repeated through the day, also available to listen online.

Read more or explore the archive at the programme website.

BBC News External Link Show Citation

Latest News

Harvard Citation

BBC News, 2012. Giant tortoise death casts shadow over Galapagos Islands [Online] (Updated 6th Aug 2012)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/1444639/Giant-tortoise-death-casts-shadow-over-Galapagos-Islands [Accessed 31st Jul 2014]

News In Other Categories

  • Robin Gibb's final song to be released

    The last song written and recorded by late Bee Gees star Robin Gibb is to be released in September.
  • The very public NHS privatisation debate

    It has been one of the talking points of the week and one of the most hotly debated subjects on social media - is the NHS in England being privatised by the back door?
  • Robin Gibb's final song to be released

    The last song written and recorded by late Bee Gees star Robin Gibb is to be released in September.
  • Council chief reprimanded over use of n-word

    The deputy leader of Powys Council has been "severely reprimanded" for using racially offensive language at a council meeting.
  • Bristol Academy extends reach overseas with first foreign students

    With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
  • Two burnt in Jersey Post chemical leak

    Two members of staff at Jersey Post were taken to hospital with minor burns after a package leaked chemicals.